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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2005

ID theft more likely from papers than from online fraud, study finds


Online fraud is a serious threat, but identity theft through the loss of a wallet, checkbook, or other paper-based means remains much more common, a study released yesterday shows.

Plus, monitoring accounts online reduces the use of personal information on paper bills and statements that can be stolen by criminals, and it allows consumers to frequently check for fraud.

Losses from fraud detected through online accounts cost $551 on average, compared with $4,543 on average for those who discovered the crime on paper statements, according to a study by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research.

As fears of online identity theft have increased, people have become careless with age-old ways to prevent fraud, such as not leaving identifying paperwork in cars or lying around homes, officials from Javelin and the Better Business Bureau said.

One out of 23 Americans - or more than 9 million people - will be victims of identity theft this year, they said.

"Most people's identity is stolen through traditional ways," said Ken Hunter, president and chief executive of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

"We really have become complacent in our comfort zones and we shouldn't."

Computer crimes accounted for less than 12 percent of all known-cause identity fraud last year, according to the report.

And in cases where the criminal's identity is known, half of all identity fraud is committed by a relative, friend, neighbor, or in-home employee, according to the report based on a survey of 4,000 consumers, including 500 victims of identity theft.

A growing problem online, though, is the use of "phishing" to try to get personal data, officials said.

Criminals send e-mails that claim and appear to be from a bank or other business, and when recipients go to a link, it will ask for personal information, which consumers might unknowingly fill go to a link, it will ask for personal information, which consumers might unknowingly fillout, they said.

The best way to combat phishing is not to use an e-mail link but go directly to a business' Web site to find out whether the information being requested is legitimate.

Similarly, people who get telephone calls from people saying they represent a credit card company or other business seeking information should hang up and call directly to see whether the call is legitimate, said James Van Dyke, Javelin's founder and principal analyst.

Banks, credit bureaus, the Federal Trade Commission, and others have made dealing with identity theft easier in recent years, said Richard Eppstein, president of the Better Business Bureau of Northwestern Ohio and Southeastern Michigan.

To help detect problems, people should request their free credit bureau reports every year, once they become available this spring, he said.

"You can get out of the trouble easier - not easily, but easier," he said.

- Julie M. McKinnon

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